Tuesday, January 06, 2004

My response a few days ago on the Poetics list to posts by Kirby Olson and others on divisions or "separatism" within the left was not meant to suggest that Kirby or anyone else was actively advocating the expulsion of all minorities from the U.S. But it was meant to suggest that much of this discussion seems grounded in a nostalgia for a culture free of conflict and difference--a nostalgia that is being expressed largely, here as elsewhere, through an anxiety about the "foreign."

So while I appreciate Kirby's efforts to clarify his position in response to what I said, I'm still disturbed by statements like Kirby's from yesterday ("Denmark and Sweden have a lot more foreign influx than Finland does, and consequently more problems"); or, in the parallel Lord of the Rings discussion, something like Matt Keenan's suggestion that Tolkien writes "of a time when there wasn't a question at all of there being races per se...Wasn't it a better world in a way?"

I guess I am "misreading" Kirby's, Haas Bianchi's, and others' posts, in the sense that they are motivated by the ostensibly larger goal of articulating a unifying strategy for the American left; but what I can't help continuing to see is the ways in which such discussions of disunity tend to regard racial, gender, and sexual difference as somehow responsible for the left's divisions. Whether such differences are described as racial or "cultural" makes little difference if, as in Kirby's argument, these differences are seen as absolute. Kirby's position--that, say, a lesbian and a Black Muslim could not even speak to each other--strikes me as far more pessimistic and essentializing than anything an activist of either group might believe, if only because members of such groups don't enjoy the luxury of leading entire lives untouched by those who are not like them.

In short, the logic that blames minority or feminist groups for the left's disunity is perverse: ethnic and feminist activism arises precisely because such groups have previously been considered outside political discourse, and "identity politics," however maligned it may be now, has to be understood as a response to a political system that first constructs racial, gender, and sexual categories and then fails to extend citizenship equally to all of them.

What we've seen over the past three decades is not some kind of splintering but an emergence of new groups and sources of energy on the left, along with the sometimes difficult process of understanding how, if at all, such new organizations can work with more hidebound ones like the Democratic Party. (That the Democrats are hemorrhaging on both left and right--from the Green insurgency in 2000 to defections of Southern Democrats in Congress--suggests that the problem is not so much with the left per se but with the Party and its standard-bearers.) It's often claimed that contemporary college students are politically apathetic and inert, but I think it would be more accurate to say that students are much more likely today to become active around specific issues--the environment, university labor relations, affirmative action--and the left has to embrace this new landscape and form coalitions across it rather than bemoaning it and waiting for the emergence of a new political messiah. The Dean campaign, driven in part by opposition to the Iraq war but now sprouting tables and buttons on campuses everywhere, is a great example.

Finally, I'm glad Kirby brought up Charles Olson. What's most interesting to me in Olson is not those moments where he's trying to hold it all together (in Poundian, authoritarian fashion) but those more diffuse moments where the poetic landscape turns into a kind of map you can wander around in without being told where to go. It's less the epic and assimilative than the local and personal--thinking through, rather than somehow beyond, identities--that appeals to me in Olson's work--the sense of working in a very particular place and situation, and that you can't write a Republic without sitting in a little gloom on Watch-House Point.

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